Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Memorandum 33

Submission from the University of Buckingham

DEGREE CLASSIFICATION

Summary

    — The QAA should be abolished— The external examiners' system should be strongly reinforced— A research agency—to allow employers to compare degrees from different universities—should be established

1.  INTRODUCTION

  Trust in traditional British university degree classifications is now so low that, after two centuries, we are having to replace them with the Burgess Report's HEAR transcripts. But unless we sustain proper mechanisms of trust, those transcripts, too, will soon be found wanting. Why has trust in our traditional degree classifications been lost? The fault lies with the supplanting of the power of external examiners with the power of QAA. The external examiners should be restored to power, and the QAA should be abolished.

2.  BACKGROUND

  British higher education was once one of the UK's USPs. Even today, after two centuries of competition from Germany, the US et alia, the universities of the Russell and 1994 Groups retain considerable international prestige. But that prestige is waning, and much of the fault lies with the degree inflation they have fostered. The QAA maintains that the new system of mass higher education is responsible, and the QAA is right—but not for the reasons it proffers. The QAA maintains that the creation of the new universities has forced the universities of the Russell and 1994 Groups to inflate their grades to provide their graduates with a competitive advantage. And the QAA maintains that that inflation has been further fuelled by the universities' competition in the league tables.

3.  But those arguments are empty. Everyone knows that a degree from a university of the Russell and 1994 Groups is more substantial than one from a new university, so—left to themselves—the older universities would have continued to pride themselves on their discriminatory degree grading. But with the creation of the new universities in 1992 came also the introduction of the QAA's predecessor body the Higher Education Quality Council and, moreover, the tasking of the Funding Councils with inspection of the universities' teaching, Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA).

  4.  Those centralised national audit functions and institutions were created because nobody trusted the new universities to conduct themselves properly, but in a spirit of equity they were also extended to the old universities. The British universities thus lost an eight-century tradition of self-government, and the irony is not that—as mythologised—the polys became universities but rather that, under the 1992 legislation, the universities became polys.

  5.  The QAA claims that it does not infringe self-governance but that it simply monitors the universities' own adherence to their own codes of self-governance. That claim is simply false. In practice (see its own voluminous literature) the QAA imposes a monolithic system on governance on the sector in the centralising traditions of continental Europe.

  6.  British universities have long treasured quality, and under their external examiners' system, now about two centuries old (and almost unique to the UK; Ireland, South Africa and Australasia possess it, but neither North America nor continental Europe do, to their reputational cost) their quality was long assured. But with the intrusion of centralised national quality agencies, the external examiners system has been allowed to lose authority. Yet the external examiners' system is superior to the QAA as it is annual, comprehensive, and conducted by experts who inspect on the ground.

  7.  The external examiners' system needs, therefore, to be reinforced and restored to centrality. It would be legitimate for the Government to seek—by the creation of a new agency—to assure itself that the system had been properly restored. More importantly, it would be appropriate for the new agency to be primarily a research agency, concerned with providing potential employers with guidance over the true parity of different universities' degree classifications.

  8.  The faults of the QAA are comprehensive. It is like its partner OFSTED, which gave Haringey Council's children's social services the top marks in its recent audit but which harasses effective children's social services for failures of box ticking. I have outlined some of the QAA's faults in appendices 1 and 2, which are recent newspaper articles, but there are more.

9.  CONCLUSION

  The QAA should be abolished, and the external examiner system should be restored to centrality and power.

December 2008






 
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